Sunday, June 23, 2013

A Novel Discovery by an Accidental Botanist (a letter to the Earth)

By the late Aven Nelson, Professor of Botany, University of Wyoming, Laramie
Photo by Hollis Marriott, 2004.
The rugged high country of the northern Laramie Mountains is home to a rare columbine that grows nowhere else on earth.  It has showy flowers as do all columbines, but few people ever see them, for the plant is small and grows on all-but-inaccessible rock outcrops.  I was fortunate to have found it.

It was back in the early days of my botanical career, a curious story in itself.  I came to Laramie in 1887 to teach English at the new University of Wyoming, but the administration had inadvertently hired two English professors.  I had a Bachelor’s Degree from the Missouri State Normal School, whereas W. I. Smith had a Master’s Degree from Dartmouth College.  He got the job.

Fortunately the University needed an instructor for botany, zoology, physical geography, hygiene and several other subjects.  I presented my credentials -- an assistantship in biology, a love of natural history, several wildflower collections, and attendance at six lectures on plants.  I was promptly appointed Professor of Biology, Instructor of Calisthenics and University Librarian.  I was to study the flora (native plants) of Wyoming as well.  Thus began my career as an accidental botanist.

Wyoming was a wonderful place to botanize, for little was known about the state’s flora.  There were endless opportunities for exploration and adventure, and it was likely that “novelties” (species new to science) awaited discovery.  This was all very exciting for a young man embarking on new and unexpected career!

Research began in the summer of 1893.  I collected plant specimens in the vicinity of Laramie and spent the following winter identifying them.  Resources at the University were limited, so I sent my specimens to academic experts elsewhere for verification.  That was a learning experience!  I was told some were inadequate, and that my collection information was incomplete.  I was determined not to let that happen again.

The next two field seasons I traveled across Wyoming by horseback and wagon with a guide, an outfitter and a diligent student assistant.  We generally camped out and though we carried a tent we rarely used it, the weather being fine for sleeping under the stars.  Plants were carefully collected, pressed and dried, and all necessary information recorded.
Our collecting sites in 1894 and 1895 (click map to view).
In early August of 1895, we were traveling north along the east side of the Laramie Mountains, stopping periodically to collect.  We decided to climb Laramie Peak and approached it by way of Cotton-wood Cañon, where I collected a plant from dry crevices in abrupt cliffs.  It was a columbine, but not the common one of the Rocky Mountains.  This was a small delicate plant with white flowers.
My first collection of the Laramie columbine, from Cotton-wood Cañon in 1895.
Specimen from the Rocky Mountain Herbarium, University of Wyoming.
Study that winter revealed that the columbine was indeed a novelty.  I named it Aquilegia laramiensis.  Over a century later my choice of names would prove prescient, as surveys confirmed that the Laramie columbine grows only in the Laramie Mountains.

It has been quite entertaining to look down from my perch on high and watch today’s botanists search for the Laramie columbine!  It’s no easier to find now than it was back in my day, even with modern transportion.  There are only 51 known sites, all with scattered plants growing on hard-to-get-to rock outcrops where few people go.  Perhaps this is a blessing ... perhaps inaccessibility will ensure that the Laramie columbine thrives in its rugged rocky home for many years to come.  I certainly hope so!
Typical habitat of the Laramie columbine; photo by Dennis Horning.
[Editor’s note:  From his rather inauspicious beginnings, Aven Nelson went on to a long and productive career that earned him the title “Father of Wyoming Botany.”  By the time he died in 1952 at age 93, he had described numerous novelties, published over 100 academic articles, and mentored many students who would become prominent botanists themselves.]

Blogger Hollis Marriott has been crossing paths with Aven Nelson since she moved to Wyoming in 1977, most recently while doing surveys for the Laramie columbine.  This post was copied verbatim from a mysterious letter left on her field vehicle, while parked at the base of Laramie Peak.

Note on Writing and Blogging

This post began as a sketch for an article for our local paper, the Laramie Boomerang, part of a series by the Albany County Museum Coalition.  I thought that if Aven Nelson could somehow tell me about the Laramie columbine, it would personalize the story and make it more engaging.  As I wrote, I became so taken by the idea of Nelson himself "writing" the article that I ran the concept by the editors.  We decided it didn’t fit with the style of the series, so I continued with a third-person version.

But of course there was no need to toss Aven’s story.  It’s right at home here in the blogosphere.  We bloggers have the freedom to write in our voice, in ways that excite us.  Most likely there will be sympathetic readers out there somewhere who will enjoy our creations.


  1. Thanks for sharing this Hollis. I really enjoy reading about botanists and plant hunters that paved the way for us.

    1. thank you, Tim -- for reading and for your comment.